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Best Record-Store Clerk St. Louis 2000 - Jim Lovins, Wherehouse Music

Record-store clerks behave like members of an exclusive club -- one in which inclusion is guaranteed to those for whom "customer service" means "funeral for a shopper." Record-store clerks start as uncorrupted rock fans with musical notes in their eyes. Before long, though, a cancerous cynicism grows inside, usurping the sanguine innocence. It's like Buddy Holly doing a Dorian Gray descent into Sid Vicious. Record-store employees have seen and heard it all. They no longer wish to face the music -- it's become the dissonance of too many questions, too many people's ignorance of the very music they seek (an aggravating paradox) and too many times giving directions to people who don't reveal their starting point. They make fun of customers. They take lunches longer than Woodstock. And those are the nice clerks. Customer service has been retired with the turntable, and most employee talk is off-the-record.

At Wherehouse Music in South County, Jim Lovins not only faces the music, he shakes its hand. With his announcer-bordering-on-carnival-barker voice and self-charging energy, Lovins is proof that youth is wasted on the young. He evokes one of his idols -- perhaps Henry Mancini or Duke Ellington addressing his orchestra -- when he offers, "You're only as good as the people around you." He points out that he trained the staff, not so much to take credit as to explain the jarring friendliness.

With his cheery paunch and doughnut of hair, Lovins is not your -- well, actually he is -- your father's record-store clerk. In a samplified atmosphere of dance, rock and pop, where some employees are younger than disco, Lovins, 61, sticks out like a trumpet solo. But he unites the disparate worlds of music and courtesy, which he happens to think go together better than rhythm & blues, a style Lovins knows plenty about, along with jazz, classical and soundtracks. He drops little nuggets: That Quincy Jones credits Mancini with bringing jazz to TV on Peter Gunn. That John Barry didn't write the James Bond theme; it was only his arrangement (this is still up for debate, although Monty Norman is credited). Those facts he gathered on his own, but Lovins keeps an open ear. "I learn from the customer," he says without a drop of condescension. "You might say something now that I never knew, and I'll retain it." He takes mental notes, he says, keeping an ear open for tips on music he hasn't heard. His passion has jazzed up the inventory. "We try to get stuff here that you won't find anywhere else," he says.

Lovins' newest career (he spent years in the grocery business; are peach crates the common thread?) began at the ill-fated Blockbuster Music -- same building -- when word got out that a classical expert was needed. Back then, used CDs weren't something you could find in many of the big chains. In fact, he admits, "There are still people who won't buy used. They don't want it; they want new. I like used CDs, because I can buy more."

Lovins buys new music to complement his vintage favorites. He gestures over to a wall. "I like Kiss. We won that Kiss plaque. I won it," he humbly clarifies. "We all competed against each other. I happened to sell one or two more. I guess I was just lucky." Gene Simmons and Jim Lovins aren't that different. One paints his face; the other draws customers.

-- Jordan Oakes

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